Way Back When
Thousands of years ago, a giant glacier sliced along the foot of today's North Shore mountains, carving out a deep trench and piling up a gigantic moraine of rock and sand. When the ice retreated, water from the Pacific flowed in and the moraine became a peninsula, flanked on one side by a deep natural harbor (today's Port of Vancouver on Burrard Inlet) and on the other by a river of glacial meltwater (the Fraser River). Vast forests of fir and cedar covered the land, and wildlife flourished. The First Nations tribes that settled in the area developed rich cultures based on cedar and salmon.
Although Vancouver is one of the most densely populated cities in North America, it also has over 1,298 hectares (3,207 acres) of parks and green space. At 404 hectares (998 acres), Stanley Park is the largest and most famous. Eighteen kilometers (11 miles) of beaches surround Vancouver, including one at English Bay (First Beach) and two in Stanley Park (Second Beach and Third Beach), all three easily reachable from anywhere in central Vancouver. Kitsilano Beach is the pride and joy of the west-side Kitsilano neighborhood. The other city beaches -- Jericho, Locarno, Spanish Bank East, Spanish Bank Extension, Spanish Bank West, and Sunset -- are farther south, near the University of British Columbia.
Across Burrard Inlet and visible from just about anywhere in Vancouver, the nearby North Shore Mountains are home to three ski areas (Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain, and Mount Seymour), each within 20 to 30 minutes by car from downtown Vancouver. The Capilano River, Lynn Creek, and Seymour River, all less than half an hour from downtown, provide opportunities for salmon fishing (late summer), and some whitewater kayaking during periods of rain and spring melt.
The original vegetation of most of Vancouver and Victoria was dense temperate rainforest, consisting of conifers -- a mix of Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and Western hemlock -- with scattered pockets of maple, alder, and around Victoria, Garry oaks (indigenous to Vancouver Island). The forest you see today in Vancouver's Stanley Park is mostly second and third growth, and evidence of old-fashioned logging techniques such as springboard notches can still be seen there. British Columbia has been heavily logged, as you'll see if you venture out of Vancouver or Victoria, but it has also preserved the largest area of temperate rainforest left in the Northern Hemisphere (the Great Bear Rainforest). Clear-cutting of old-growth forest has spurred major environmental action, especially in the area around Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
As the Eagle Flies
Keep your eyes open, and you may spot a bald eagle or two in Vancouver and Victoria, though most of these magnificent raptors hang out in less populated and fishier areas. In fact, the largest concentration of American bald eagles in North America annually congregates at Brackendale, about an hour north of Vancouver. Brackendale Art Gallery (tel. 604/898-3333; www.brackendaleartgallery.com) has hosted counts every year for more than 25 years, and has witnessed a decline of numbers which, in 1994, numbered more than 3,700 birds in one day along a 15km (9 1/4-mile) stretch of the Squamish Valley; in 2008, the number dropped to 895, and in 2011, it fell to 627. The eagles congregate at the junction of Howe Sound at the mouths and tributaries of the Cheakamus, the Mamquam, and the Squamish rivers, to feed on spawning salmon. The mature trees -- mixtures of fir, cedar, hemlock, and skeletal deciduous trees -- provide perfect roosting spots for these huge birds. The birds are also commonly sighted in and around Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park.
Gray Whales & Orcas
From mid- to late March, thousands of gray whales pass along the coast of British Columbia on their annual migration from Alaska down to their breeding grounds in Baja. The best places to view these giant mammals are Tofino and Ucluelet on the western coast of Vancouver Island, which celebrate the annual event with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival. But when companies in Victoria or Vancouver advertise "whale-watching" excursions, it is the orca, or killer whale, they are referring to. These animals are closer at hand and easier to spot -- in fact, a pod of them lives year-round in the waters near Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.